On Clough Head

As you drive along the A66 to Keswick, your eyes are immediately drawn by the splendours of Blencathra – and rightly so. But I always also admire Clough Head, on the opposite side of the valley from Threlkeld, its great rounded shape, though rocky around White Pike, has its own aesthetic delights.

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Atop Clough Head (c) John Bainbridge 2017

Last Sunday was a beautiful Lakeland day, though there was a fierce and freezing wind. We set out from Threlkeld Cricket Club, taking the lane up to Newsham and then climbing the muddy hillside to the old coach road at Hawsewell Brow.

Now about that old coach road – there it is so boldly stated on the Ordnance Survey map, running from St John’s in the Vale to Dockery.

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On the Old Coach Road (c) John Bainbridge 2017

I’d like to see some considerable evidence – or even a shred – that it was ever a coach road. I can’t find the slightest proof. Why would coaches ever use it given there’s an established Keswick to Penrith coaching route with a proven history and which makes more geographical sense. I’ve seen accounts that it’s actually a peat-cutters route – it may be. But I’ve got my own thoughts, which I’ll come back to in the future.

I always think of this as The Long Kill territory, the area being the setting of Reginald Hill’s thriller of that name. Well worth seeking out if you like thrillers, Lake District fiction or both. Reg Hill certainly knew his Lakeland and was a fellwalker of some note.

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A Lakeland Panorama (c) John Bainbridge 2017

Anyway, we followed the old coach road to the brow of the hill, passed through the hunting gate and made the ascent to White Pike. Quite a wind chill by this point, painful on bare flesh.

But worth it as we made our way to the top of Clough Head. One of those very clear days where you can see every detail for so many miles, but absolutely bitter as I exposed fingers to operate the camera. Frozen hail on the ground. Even padded clothing struggled to keep that wind chill at bay

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The view from White Pike (c) John Bainbridge 2017

We returned the same way after a delightful but chilly morning’s walk.

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A Walk on Frostrow Fell

Although we’ve walked from Sedbergh north on to the wonderful Howgill Fells, we’d never gone in the other direction from the town, up on to Frostrow Fell, though we later returned through the more familiar edges of lower Dentdale – a modest walk of under seven miles.

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On Frostrow Fell (c) John Bainbridge 2017

Well worth it though – the feel of the terrain is very different from the Howgill side.

From Sedbergh we set out along the Hawes road and then following a no through road lane of old farmhouses up on to the edge of Frostrow Fell.

The joy of the fell is in the surrounding views, particularly back towards the Howgills and over the town of Sedbergh, but also towards the vast stretch of wild country around Baugh Fell.

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Towards Gap Wood (c) John Bainbridge 2017

Frostrow Fell itself was very wet underfoot, but then we’ve had a lot of rain this year. It reminded me of some of the soggier stretches of Dartmoor, bleak and not particularly aesthetically beautiful, but a joy for those who love moorland walking.

One thing we did notice, and I don’t know whether it’s just the time of year – the almost complete absence of birds. We didn’t see any all the way across the Frostrow watershed.

A very wet but obvious trod brought us to the little water of Holebeck Gill, and then up to a long line of stone wall, where we met with the line of the Dales High Way path.

We descended then into Dentdale at Helm Farm, where we watched and talked to a shepherd with his two dogs bringing the sheep down into the dale. Take away the quad bike and you’d be seeing a scene unchanged for centuries.

Our path followed the lane for a half mile between Helm and Craggs Farms, and then we took field paths through Leakses Farm to Burton Hill Farm.

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The old track now the Dales Way (c) John Bainbridge 2017 

At the next farm, Hewthwaite, we picked up the track of the Dales Way – a very obvious and clearly ancient track. It must have a history, but I don’t know what it is. The kind of clear wide path used by drovers, or jaggers with their packhorses. A beautiful old walk in any case as it made its way through the fringes of Gap Wood, over a slight spur of Frostrow and down to the hamlet of Millthrop.

From here paths and lanes took us back into Sedbergh, where – given that this is a book town – we spent a happy hour or two browsing in a couple of the antiquarian bookshops, where there are always pleasant discoveries to be made.

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Sedbergh and the Howgills (c) John Bainbridge 2017

A Walk in a Devon Wood

In Devon is a wood of over three hundred acres, surrounded on three sides by the curve of a river, the fourth side edged by a busy main road. This oakwood was once a Chase, a hunting ground from Norman times, part of one of the great manorial estates of the county.

In ages past the harsh laws that applied to many such hunting grounds with mutilation, fines and imprisonment, applied to anyone caught transgressing these manor grounds. In Regency and Victorian times the chase was strictly preserved for shooting, no doubt with man traps and spring guns set to deter interlopers. Yet even then there was recognition of the woodland’s beauty. In the nineteenth-century, a landowner built carriage drives that contoured the hillsides, so that his friends and visitors might better see the exquisite views over the swirling waters of the river.

One guidebook author, writing in the years before the Great War, tells us that the then landowner opened up the carriage drives to the public on certain days of the week, showing at least some commitment to sharing such beauty with others. It is a dramatic landscape, the wooded hillside falling steeply from an Iron Age hill fort to the white waters of a mighty river; great rocky tors rising steeply both from the hillside and the river banks. There was once some industry here, for hidden deep in the undergrowth are the shafts and adits of ancient mine workings.

While the Chase is no longer preserved for game, some local people have a concession for occasional rough shooting, and a fisherman or two might be seen near to the little footbridge on summer evenings. For such a vast area there is a limited amount of wildlife as much of it was cleared in earlier days. The empty badger setts speak volumes about the past ferocity of unenlightened gamekeepers towards Britain’s native wildlife. The near-island status of the woodland has made natural re-colonization difficult, though some mammals have been put back over the past few years.

There is no absolute refusal of entry to the forest and river banks. The landowner is not opposed to limited access by written permission. But the general public is discouraged. There are few access points. High wire fences and locked gates greet the visitor in the area adjacent to the nearest public car park. The fast-flowing river is sufficient deterrent to all but the brave or foolhardy on three sides.

I had not walked through the woodlands of the chase for some years, until my trespass. I had had no plans to go there on that quiet Tuesday but, seeing the autumnal woods from the opposite hillside proved too great a temptation. I had had a fraught meeting earlier in the day and felt the need to unwind in some wild place. There were not many cars on the road, so I climbed over the hedge bank and plunged into the cover of the wood. There were one or two nearby houses, but no one was about as I headed along the brow of the hill along one of the now overgrown Victorian carriage drives. This rutted trail bore little sign that anyone had been there recently; there were the hoof prints of horses and old boot marks, but no suggestion of fresher human tracks in its muddy ruts.

You get a strange feeling walking through great woodlands, knowing that although this is urbanised southern England, there is no one close at hand. A fall here could mean that you might not be found for days or even weeks. Although this should be a perilous sensation it is not. It is comforting that there are such places where we can still be totally in thrall to nature in all its wildness, a far cry from the over-comfortable state in which most of us exist if not actually live.

Then, for the trespasser, is the contrary feeling that perhaps you are not alone. You search the trees and the undergrowth for the watching eyes, and even though you sink into a mood of pure relaxation your nerves are geared up to the possibility of ambush. You think of what you might say if you are challenged. Will you be aggressive or submissive? Will there be a moment of violence or just mutual embarrassment? You look for side paths so that you might slink away if you hear other footsteps, the crack of a dry twig, or someone’s conversation. The true trespasser seeks avoidance and not confrontation, unless it be an occasion when you really want to make a political point.

Walking beneath the highest trees in the chase is like progressing through the arches of some great cathedral. There is a stateliness about such trees, inducing a feeling of awe that there should be such wondrous creations on the face of the Earth. Even in an early autumn there is a great deal of cover left, magnificent leaves of every shade of brown and russet, continually adding in the gentle breeze to the thick carpet of vegetation at your feet. Even the wider tracks are hidden by lost leaves and sometimes obstructed by branches brought down in the year’s gales.

As I strolled on, I came to a vast open space surrounded on all sides by the forest; the track I was following forcing a way alongside a tiny stream. There were roe deer grazing not far from the woodland edge, some feeding and others standing sentinel, regarding each area of the woodland boundary for threatening intruders.

I was walking with the prevailing wind at my back, but the depth of the trees and undergrowth disperse the air currents in all directions, giving no hint of my approach. I lay down alongside the roots of an oak and watched the deer for nearly an hour – a real privilege to see them in such a natural setting. I have watched deer in these woods before, not just the roe but red deer that have made the long journey from Exmoor. There are also the strange little muntjac with their noisy bark, introduced to the area by some past landowner.

I wondered how to progress on my journey without disturbing the deer, when the matter was taken out of my hands. First one, then another, then all the deer looked up. I knew why. A harsh crack of a snapped tree bough echoed up from the valley, followed by the crash of someone forcing their way uphill through the scrub. The outer branches of a holly shivered and a man emerged on to the track.

The deer had not waited for his appearance, but had disappeared into the forest on the opposite side of the clearing. I knew the man. He was an estate worker who had the occasional duty of patrolling the chase in search of interlopers. He was quite elderly, with a ruddy face and grey hair straddling out from beneath an old tweed cap. He paused on the track out of breath from the arduous climb up from the river and the fishermen’s footbridge.

I considered at first that I might have been seen entering the chase and the man sent over to find me, but decided that it was pure coincidence that we were together in the woodland. He didn’t seem to be searching for anyone, just enjoying a work day on his own, away from managerial eyes. I slid back away from the oak and backwards into deeper vegetation, keeping him in sight all the while. Just as well as a moment later he turned down the track towards me. I watched as he passed within a few feet obviously unaware of my presence, breathing heavily as he negotiated the fallen branches.

I sometimes wonder, when on a trespassing walk, whether I am passing hidden watchers in exactly that same way. Woods are deep and secret places and your imagination hints that there might be a thousand hidden eyes. In olden times when the chase was a game preserve both keeper and poacher would have been wary of being observed, watching the signs of nature for hints that they were not alone.

In well preserved woods it is very difficult to move quietly at all. On a ramble in Sussex I must have put up a hundred very noisy pheasants in the course of a couple of miles. There is the running of the deer, the sudden bolt of rabbit and hare, even an alarmed blackbird. All give warnings that there is someone about. In farm fields cows often come to investigate the passing rambler. Sheep head away from the hillwalkers on moorland and mountain. Pigeons divert from their course as they pass near walkers. All draw the eyes and ears of those who would oppose the trespasser.

I could hear the man for nearly half an hour as he continued on his way. But I saw no more deer as I came out on to the track and set off in the opposite direction, downhill now towards the river. The path was steep and overgrown. It was hard to imagine the Victorian trippers negotiating it by horse and carriage. They must have had exciting expeditions. How often was their sightseeing observed by some unauthorised spectator?

I heard the river long before it came into view. For a while the track contoured just above its banks for a long stretch, before making one final dip towards the lower carriage drive that followed its course. It had rained heavily in the previous weeks and the high moorland was issuing forth its stored moisture. White water broke over fierce rapids. Dark and jagged rocks, emerging from the thundering flow, seemed to tear apart the river itself. If anything else was making a noise in that landscape it could not be heard against the roar of the river. A thousand watchers might yell disapproval at my presence but they were as silence itself against the sounds that boiled through the valley.

A long length of almost pure white water led to a sudden curve in the river, where it fell into a deep and dark pool. On the opposite bank a great cliff arose from the pool, rising high above the banks and the surrounding trees. Even in autumn little sunlight penetrated to the black waters of this quieter stretch of river. The pool is famously deep but has a forbidding atmosphere that seems to deter the swimmer. It is a place just made for suicide. Its sinister waters seem to urge you to the very act of jumping. I once intended to spend an evening there watching for otters, but felt so depressed that I hurried away after just an hour. I stayed there on my trespass for only the briefest of moments before continuing back upstream.

The carriage drive brought me to the miniature suspension bridge used by fishermen. The gate was unlocked, so I crossed and left the privacy of the chase behind. I had walked through one of the most magnificent landscapes in southern England. Seen once again spectacular and beautiful river scenery and tramped beneath tall and majestic trees. But how sad that this land, countryside that should be the common heritage of us all, is barred to those who might most delight in its wonders.

This is published here in celebration of the Ramblers decision to campaign for increased access to our forests and woodlands. See the previous blog to find out how you can help. The above is an abridged version of a chapter from my book The Compleat Trespasser. On offer to Kindle readers for just 99 this weekend. Also in paperback. Just click on the link to start reading or to order.

Ramblers Call for more woodland access

November 6 marks the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, an historic document that gave common people the right of access to forest land.

This can be seen as the first step in a campaign spanning centuries, seeking the legal guarantee of freedom for people to access England’s beautiful landscapes. In more recent years we have seen the Kinder Scout trespass, the founding of the Ramblers, the establishment of National Parks and National Trails, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, the right to create the England Coast Path, among many other achievements. See our timeline below for the full history!

At this anniversary we are not only celebrating the last 800 years of access, but we are also looking forward to the next 800 years.

It may surprise you that today, only 40% of woodland in England and Wales is accessible to the public, and much of this doesn’t have a permanent right of access, meaning it could be closed off at any time. Our recent YouGov survey revealed that people want increased access to woods and forests more than any other type of land.

In response, we are calling on the government to improve access to the beautiful woodlands of England and Wales. Add your voice to this call by signing our petition here.

This anniversary really brings to life the long history of the struggle for greater access to the countryside, a mission that is very close to many people’s hearts. But what do people want for the next 800 years? Now is your chance to help shape the future of access. Share your views in our survey here.

Sign the petition

Join us by putting your names against our calls as we look forward to the future of access.

Timeline of access milestones

Browse our interactive timeline to see the rich history of access rights in Britain, dating back 800 years.

Survey

We want to build up a picture of how access land is used today. Let us know what you get up to.

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FAQs

Take a look at our answers to commonly asked questions about the campaign.

A Book “Redolent of Country Air” says Walk Magazine

For just one week from tonight, my book The Compleat Trespasser – Journeys Into Forbidden Britain is available for just 99 pence/cents as a Kindle read for your smartphone (with a free Kindle App) or to read on a Kindle device or laptop.

It’s also out in paperback.dscf8425

Walk Magazine in its review said:

“On a vagabonding tour through Britain’s most delightful countryside and forbidden tracts, Bainbridge charts the history of access and assesses the present state of the law.

Villainous landowners feature; so do the likes of GHB Ward and CEM Joad, calling at rallies for access to mountain and moor. Gamekeepers, spring-guns and mass trespasses also get a look-in.

Redolent of country air, with nature and archaeology dealt with in graphic style, the book evokes the age of campaigns before words like ‘stakeholder’ and ‘partnership’ were hatched out.

The author lends his support to the England Coast Path campaign and calls for the Scottish access model to be extended throughout Britain. It’s thought-provoking stuff and well worth a read.”

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

ABOUT THE COMPLEAT TRESPASSER: In 1932, five ramblers in England were imprisoned for daring to walk in their own countryside. The Mass Trespass on to Kinder Scout, which led to their arrests, has since become an iconic symbol of the campaign for the freedom to roam in the British countryside.

The Compleat Trespasser – Journeys Into The Heart Of Forbidden Britain, written by outdoors journalist and novelist John Bainbridge, looks at just why the British were – and still are – denied responsible access to much of their own land.

This ground-breaking book examines how events through history led to the countryside being the preserve of the few rather than the many.

It examines the landscapes to which access is still denied, from stretches of moorland and downland to many of our beautiful forests and woodlands.

An inveterate trespasser, John Bainbridge gives an account of some of his own journeys into Britain’s forbidden lands, as he walks in the steps of poachers, literary figures and pioneer ramblers.

The book concludes with a helpful chapter of “Notes for Prospective Trespassers”, giving a practical feel to this handbook on the art of trespass. At a time when government is putting our civil liberties at threat, destroying the beauties of our countryside, and your right to access it, this book is a most useful read.

John Bainbridge has been a country walker for over fifty years. He was recently commended by the Ramblers Association for his many years of campaigning service to the rambling movement. He is the author of some thirty books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, mostly about the countryside and outdoor life.

John is also the author of the historical novels LoxleyWolfshead and Villain, chronicling the adventures of Robin Hood – one of Britain’s most notorious trespassers – as well as the thriller Balmoral Kill and the William Quest mystery novels.

To order or to begin reading for free just click on the link below:

 

Devon and Dartmoor Caves and Hollows

Exploring Devon Caves: Little Caves on Dartmoor

Or perhaps not just caves in the exact sense of the word. More hollows or man-made features.

In my Dartmoor wanderings I usually found some hollow to crawl in, which saved the need to take a tent or a bivvy bag – there are so many such places, nearly every Dartmoor tor has at least one. I had favourites. I spent many a night in the long crack atop Great Links Tor,a grand Dartmoor bedroom which needed a bit of mild rock climbing to access. Another was the niche under Cuckoo Rock, not far from Sheepstor, which offers one of the best views on Dartmoor. It was always a strange feeling lying there, in the very roots of the great rock pile. I would always make a point of scrambling to the top on nice evenings to see the wide view over south-western Dartmoor.

Not far away, above the brook in the Deancombe (Dennycombe) Valley were several potato caves, dug as storage to keep the spuds dry by the local farmers. Their farmsteads are ruins now but the caves remain. I used to sleep in those too on wilder nights when the south west gales battered the moorland.

One of my favourite caves was the Pixies Holt, not far from Dartmeet. A lovely dry place to camp out right in the centre of Dartmoor.

I’ve always been fascinated by caves.

As a small child I spent a lot of days at Kinver, exploring its rocks and hollows. They say it’s a subconscious desire to recapture the warmth and comfort of the womb. They may be right. I never get claustrophobia – perhaps a genetic legacy from all those coal-mining ancestors.

Once upon a time, when I was seventeen, and had a motorbike, and petrol was about 3 bob a gallon, and a tank of it lasted a couple of weeks, I took up caving as a change from rambling and rock climbing. In those days I had the build for it, being skeletally thin. Every Saturday we would go out, find a hole, go down it, and get plastered in mud. We had plastic helmets, lights, magnesium flares – appropriated from my old chemistry set – and boiler suits.

Now these caves weren’t the dramatic potholes of the Peak or the Mendips, though those came later, but the milder holes of Devon.

We started on our old rock climbing ground at Chudleigh Rocks, in a marvellous cave called the Pixie’s Hole, once the haunt of prehistoric man, a Palaeolithic shelter.  I had first explored it as a schoolboy as an exercise for my CSE geography field work notebook, going no further than a long ascending slope known as the Toad’s Penance. Now we went further high into the rock, then down into a ravine, full of bats who never seemed very bothered by our explorations. Climbing up on a homemade rope ladder we found that the cave exited through a smaller hole on the far side of the Rocks. Had we firsted a Himalayan summit we could not have been more thrilled.

Soon afterwards, crossing the pretty little Kate Brook, we found a tiny tunnel at the foot of the opposite cliffs. We crawled in a few yards and found it blocked by a fall, but were convinced it must go further. We dug enough of a passage to slip through. It ran for what seemed about a hundred yards, ending in a circular chamber. It was decided to remove the surplus earth to make the passage easier. While the boys did that I explored the far chamber, starting digging in what could be a continuation. For several hours they blocked me in completely, entombed under thousands of tons of rock, a weird feeling. I often wonder if modern cavers have found a way through into a greater cave system.

The last time I visited the Rocks, the caves were barred. They say to protect the bats, though I think that’s a lot of nonsense. Local word is that the powers that be don’t want the homeless living there, as our ancestors did a million years ago.

Young Cavers in Devon now must head further afield to appease their hunger for adventure.

There are several caves in the vicinity of Buckfastleigh, on the southern edge of Dartmoor. Back in the 1970s, we made quite a study of the Pridhamsleigh system, not far from the farm of the same name.

The approach to the cave has now been ruined by the construction of the A38 trunk road. In those days it was much quieter, with farm fields leading up to a much more modest old coaching route. Nearby there was a lovely brook in which we bathed after caving, to get the glutinous Pridhamsleigh mud off our bodies. The stream as I knew it is no more, its lovely natural course destroyed by the new road, its waters trapped in concrete culvert – a horrible thing to do to living water.

You needed the brook. Prid was a filthy old cave to explore. You would be cleaner if you took up mud-wrestling. I wonder how today’s cavers manage to clean up for the journey home?

There was a quaint system of access to the cave in those days. You went to the farm first, rang a great bell, told the farmer you were going underground, and tipped him a shilling each. Terribly civilised, I thought. I hope it is not too bureaucratic in modern day nanny-state Britain.

The cave boasts an underground lake, a long, narrow stretch of water, of rather sinister aspect. I half-expected some troglodyte monster to emerge from its dark and muddy depths. The first time down we all took a wrong-turning returning from the lake, and it took us a few minutes to puzzle out the way to the exit.

Not far from Prid itself is a modest and much cleaner cave called Dog Hole, a welcome relief after a couple of hours muddy scrambling in the main cavern. I recall that it had a beautiful crystal floor.

To this day, I think of the dark depths of Prid when I want to imagine a muddy cave. I hope young people still have a chance to explore it as we did, free of care.

The Stone Circles of Harberwain Rigg

A good time of the year to hunt out antiquities as we set out from Crosby Ravensworth to look at the stone circles on the ridge around Iron Hill and Harberwain Rigg. Not stone circles in the ceremonial sense, but rather cairn retaining circles.

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Iron Hill South (c) John Bainbridge 2017

But a good season to seek out these moorland antiquities, the bracken is down and the light – on the better days – reveals features which might be lost at other rimes.

We walked up to the ridgeline of Harberwain (notice the different spellings on the map and on the ground) by way of the lane from Crosby. There is actually a footpath which runs roughly parallel with this, but the lane was so enticing with the wide views across to the north Pennines and the beautiful autumn colours on the trees.

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The old track to the ridge (c) John Bainbridge 2017

Also I believe that the lane is a particularly old track. Just before it enters the open fell west of High Harberwain, the present lane swings suddenly to the north-west. But the track on to the moorland ignores the turn and continues straight on west, towards the line of the ridge and to the location of these stone circles.

Just as the ridge is topped you can see the remnants of the first circle bisected by the stone wall. There’s little doubt that this circle – also called Iron Hill North on some maps – is a cairn retaining circle. Much of its stones must have gone into the wall and there’s only slight evidence of the retaining boulders on the far side of that wall. The surviving stones seem to be a mixture of limestone and granite and are rich in colour and texture.

A burial place then and probably dating back to the Bronze Age.

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The remnants of Iron Hill North (c) John Bainbridge 2017

Not many yards to the south is another cairn circle, with the suggestion of the remnants of a cist, known as Iron Hill South – more dramatic in its way, though the grandeur of the scene is somewhat spoiled by the nearby Hardendale Quarry and the distant M6 motorway.

A minor excavation many years ago found it to contain the bones of a man, a portion of deer antler and animal bones. A bronze halberd was found nearby.

Looking back at the long line of the drystone wall, I did wonder  how many more antiquities were lost to its construction.

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Iron Hill South (c) John Bainbridge 2017

We joined the Coast to Coast path by the secluded hamlet of Oddendale and then across the excellent and airy tracks of Crosby Ravensworth Fell back to the village, by way of the little valley known as Slack Randy – and if you know why it’s called that please let me know.